The Word Among Us

Lent 2024 Issue

A Restless Heart

A Son Is Lost and Found Again

A Restless Heart: A Son Is Lost and Found Again

It’s an iconic story, popular even among unbelievers and agnostics. It’s been a favorite subject for artists across the centuries. And even if we’ve read it hundreds of times, it never loses its power to move us. It’s Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

This Lent, we want to take an in-depth look at this parable to see what Jesus wants to teach us, both about ourselves and about our heavenly Father. As we reflect on the actions of the two sons and the father in this story, it can lead us to examine our hearts. Are there obstacles that are keeping us from fully experiencing the immensity of God’s love and mercy? Are there attitudes or assumptions that need to change so that we can draw closer to the Lord?

The first reading for Ash Wednesday is always taken from the prophet Joel: “Return to me with your whole heart” (2:12). Lent is a season for returning to the Lord, so let’s use this special time to reflect on Jesus’ parable so that we can do just that. In this article, we’ll focus on the younger son. In the next article, we’ll look at the older son. Finally, we’ll look at the father and how his actions reveal the heart of God.

A Restless Heart. Jesus told this story in order to open up the minds and hearts of the Pharisees and scribes. These religious elites just couldn’t understand why he would choose to associate with people who were known sinners, like tax collectors and prostitutes (Luke 15:2). Jesus wanted them to grasp the depth of God’s mercy as well as his desire to draw all people—not just the “righteous”—into his embrace.

Jesus’ parable must have immediately grabbed the attention of his listeners—and perhaps startled them—because it begins with a young man asking for his share of his father’s inheritance (Luke 15:12). How could this younger son dare to make such a request? He was essentially acting as if his father were already dead. Here was a son who no longer wanted his father in his life; he only wanted his inheritance.

What caused this younger son to become so restless? Why was he unsatisfied with the life and home that his father had provided him? Perhaps he dreamed of all the ways he could use his father’s money on every pleasure the world could provide. Without the responsibilities and duties that were required of him in his father’s house, he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he chose to do it. Surely this would finally make him happy!

We all feel restless from time to time. We might get tired of our daily routine or the burdens we carry to care for others. Then we start to feel dissatisfied and begin to look for ways to alleviate our discontent. Sometimes that leads us to places we know aren’t good for us and, in the long run, can’t ever make us happy.

For reflection: In what ways might I be experiencing a restless heart? What am I searching for that I think I can’t receive from my heavenly Father?

Trading Sonship for Slavery. Jesus says the son “set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13). At home, this man was a son, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that relationship. In this “distant country,” he would become a slave to his desires, spending all his money on things that would only temporarily relieve his quest for happiness.

After his money was gone and a famine struck, he “hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine” (Luke 15:15). Now he was almost literally a slave, someone who was so hungry that he “longed to eat” the pods that were fed to the pigs (15:16). How far this young man had fallen!

We know that we are sons and daughters of God, and yet there are times when we forget and act as if we were slaves. We see our Christian responsibilities as burdensome and do them out of duty and not out of love. Or we allow idols to take the place of God in our lives and, in effect, become slaves to those things.

For reflection: Are there ways in which I have gone to a “distant country”? How might I have become a slave to my desires or to the idols that threaten to take the place of God in my life?

Coming to His Senses. The young man was in desperate straits. He had only one option: to return home. But he thought that he had forfeited his rights as a son because through his actions, he had cut himself off from his father. Jesus tells us that the young man even rehearsed the plea he would make when he returned: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers” (Luke 15:18-19).

It took abject poverty and a famine for this man to acknowledge his sin; he had offended both God and his father. He now knew that his decision to leave home with his father’s money to sustain an immoral lifestyle was a grievous mistake. It had hurt both him and his father. But by “coming to his senses” (Luke 5:17), he was able to begin the journey back to his father’s house.

Jesus told this story so that we would understand that whatever wrong we have done, however far gone we feel, it is never too late to “come to our senses” and return to him. It is never too late to begin the journey back to our Father’s house.

For reflection: How might I have hurt myself or someone else by my actions or selfishness? How might I need to ask for forgiveness, from God and from the other person?

Lost and Found. The young man’s apology was barely out of his mouth when the father called for a celebration. Why? “Because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Luke 15:24).

The young man would not have to become a hired hand on his father’s estate—he was still a son. That’s what the “finest robe,” the “ring on his finger,” and the “sandals on his feet” symbolized (Luke 15:22). No matter how much he had sinned, no matter how far he had journeyed away from his home to a distant country, he had never lost the privilege of being a son in the home of his father. Though this son had treated his father unjustly, his father had not rejected him. He could take his place in the family once again.

Jesus’ parable is reassuring. We may stray from our Father at times, but the mark of Baptism never leaves us—we don’t forfeit our relationship as sons and daughters of God even when we sin. He will always restore us to our rightful place in his family, as the father did in Jesus’ parable, when we return to him with our whole hearts.

For reflection: Is there a sin that God is asking me to let go of this Lent? How will doing so draw me closer to him?

Returning from a Distant Country. “Then the celebration began,” Jesus says (Luke 15:24). There was no need for the younger son to grovel before his father or work for years as a hired hand before being admitted to the family again. No, his father was overjoyed because this son was no longer lost, nor was he dead; he had come to life again.

Lent has always been a time set aside to prepare our hearts for Easter. We have forty days to look deeply into our hearts to see where and when we have left for a “distant country,” seeking something that can never really satisfy us. When we realize that what we longed for can only deaden our hearts, we have the opportunity to return to our heavenly Father.

In a way, our experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be like that of the younger son. Before we barely have the words out of our mouths, the Father will welcome us back to him. Then, after we have offered our contrition, we will hear the priest say those blessed words: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Through the unfathomable mercy of our God, we have come to life again!